Feature

In this August/September 2022 Today's Farmer

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Spread too thin

Like many livestock producers facing record-high plant food prices, Lloyd Jones cut back on applications to his hay and pasture ground this past spring, choosing to fertilize only a small portion of the forage acres on his farm near Houston, Mo.

This summer, as drought conditions settled over southwest Missouri and temperatures reached triple digits, Jones started to regret that he hadn’t fertilized more. By mid-July, the cat­tleman was already feeding hay—the earliest he remembers—and worrying that he will have to reduce herd numbers because of limited forage supplies.

“Because prices were so high, we fertilized maybe 300 acres where we usually do 900 or 1,000, and we only put on a 4-1-2 (N-P-K ratio). Just a pat and a promise is all it was,” Jones said. “And here we are, going into the fall after hardly any rain this summer. It’s burned the grass up. We’re in a pickle, and I know we’re not the only ones.”

He’s right. In late July, nearly 75% of the Missouri was in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Several neighboring states were even worse, with more than 80% of Kansas and 100% of Arkansas under at least abnormally dry conditions.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order July 21 in response to the growing threat of serious drought. The measure calls upon the Missouri Department of Natural Re­sources to activate the Drought Assessment Committee and the drought impact teams.

“This situation for our cattle producers is dire from a forage perspective,” said Landry Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation grazing specialist. “A lot of folks didn’t fertilize at all this spring or at least didn’t replace all the nutrients that were needed. As a result, we’re seeing re­duced hay yields and stressed pastures. Now is the time to make a game plan for what to do.”

While producers can’t control Mother Nature, they can be prepared to help pastures recover and boost forage growth this fall—provided that conditions improve. Those plans should include fertilization, Landry said, even with higher-than-normal prices.

“We can’t make up for what we’re missing now, but putting fertilizer down in the fall will replace what’s been removed and keep from mining nutrients,” he said. “We have to pay back what we’re taking out, like a savings account.”

Grass pastures, particularly those with a large percentage of fescue, will respond to nitrogen in the fall if moisture is available, Landry said. Phosphorous and potash are also important for getting pastures back into productivity. Soil fertility helps keep plants healthy over the winter, encourages early spring growth and enhances water-use efficiency and root development, which are important under dry conditions.

“Fescue produces one-third of its overall seasonal growth in the fall,” he said. “If you allow it to accumulate—what we call stock­piling—in pastures and hay fields until dormancy, the forage can be grazed through the winter.”

Landry recommends clipping, mowing or grazing fescue to 3 or 4 inches around mid-August, and then applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from mid-August to mid-September. Applying stabilized nitrogen such as SuperU will help protect this key nutrient from volatilization, denitrification and leaching.

At a minimum, Landry said producers should follow tradition­al soil test results to determine fertility rates. Even better, MFA’s Nutri-Track grid-sampling program can provide precise recom­mendations and allow variable-rate applications to put nutrients exactly where they are needed. Lloyd Jones and his farm man­ager, Don Evans, enrolled in Nutri-Track six years ago, and the technology has allowed them to reduce weed pressure, improve forage quality and increase stocking rates in their pastures.

“We’ve seen such a difference in the quality of grass and the carrying capacity,” Don said. “On the 240-acre farm I manage down at Elk Creek, we went from 48 cows and feeding hay all winter to 75 cows and feeding no hay. We were able to back­ground enough grass to get by, and I’d say there’s been a 70% to 75% improvement in the number of weeds we’re fighting.”

“That precision thing is amazing,” Lloyd added. “It’s not just for the grain farmer. Cattle producers need to grow grass as efficient­ly as we can, too.”

While precision is fairly new for the lifelong farmer, Lloyd said fall fertilization is not. It’s been a standard practice on his farm.

“We’ve always done some fall fertilization because you can grow a lot of grass that time of year if you get the moisture and give it a little boost,” Lloyd said. “By getting that P and K on early, it has time to work, and the grass is ready to go in the spring.”

After fertilizing, producers should keep cattle off the stockpiled forage until they’re ready to graze, Landry said. In fescue-based pastures, the majority of growth will be complete by mid-October or first frost, providing high-quality forage with protein levels around 15% and total digestible nutrients in the low 60s.

“If you’re stockpiling properly, you’ve probably got more forage than cows need to maintain body condition,” Landry said. “One option for producers is to feed hay October through December, and then put cows on fescue from December to March or April. Those stockpiled pastures should still provide adequate nutrition through the winter months.”

Considering the cost of inputs for hay production, feeding stockpiled fescue can be a more cost-effective option, Landry said. On a dry matter basis, with adequate moisture, he estimates about 90 cents per head per day to stockpile versus $2.25 to $2.40 for purchased hay.

“You see the cost for fertilizer and think you can’t spend $80 an acre for grass,” Landry said. “When you look at the economics of hay, it’s better to stockpile.”

Dividing pastures into smaller paddocks and using rotational grazing or strip grazing will make better use of the forage, he added. With this method, cattle will only waste 15% to 20% of the standing forage. If turned out on the entire pasture, 50% to 70% can be wasted. Plus, the herd will graze in more uniform pattern and distribute manure more evenly, which helps soil fertility by recycling the nutrients they’re consuming.

“The waxy cuticle of the fescue leaves protects the plant, which is why it survives over the winter,” Landry explained. “When the cattle walk on it, they break the cuticle and forage quality de­clines. Providing a smaller section to graze and moving the herd every one to three days keeps them from damaging and overgraz­ing any one site and gives the other areas time to recover.”

It’s a practice that Lloyd Jones uses on his farm, where pastures are divided into 18- to 20-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. All the best management practices in the world, however, cannot make it rain. The veteran cattleman said he’s holding out hope that the drought will abate in time for his pastures to recover from the summer stress and give him an opportunity to replenish much-needed nutrients for good growth this fall.

“If we get some moisture, the fertilizer truck is going to be running,” Lloyd said. “We have to do something since we missed the spring—N, P, K, all of it. That’s my plan. But I don’t know what the plan upstairs is. If we don’t get rain, we won’t be able to do anything but sell cows.”

For more information on creating a forage fertility program on your farm, visit with the agronomy and livestock professionals at your local MFA or AGChoice affiliate.

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High risk, huge reward

Sybesma Cattle Company. Eli Sybesma likes the sound of that.

With the support of his family—especially his mother, Melissa— Sybesma followed his passion to start his own beef operation two years ago in Cameron, Mo. Taking small steps into the high-risk cattle market, the 26-year-old is motivated by the encouragement he receives from neighbors, friends, family and his partnership with MFA Livestock Key Account Manager Brandon Sowers.

The eldest of three boys, Sybesma graduated from Cameron High School and ventured out on his own. After a few years of traveling for construction work, he met his wife, Katie, and they decided to settle down closer to home.

“I have always had a passion for raising and feeding cattle,” Sybesma said, “and I knew I wanted to be my own boss.”

After moving near Pattonsburg, Mo., however, Sybesma said his aspi­rations to make a living in the cattle business were hindered by lack of financial backing, land and cattle. He was not deterred. Sybesma took a job in Kansas City knowing that each day working for someone else was one step closer to having his own business.

Starting small, Sybesma saved enough money to buy a few bred cows and started his operation on 20 acres of rented ground.

“That was the moment I decided I wasn’t going to live without cattle,” he said.

He sold the calves from those first cows, and with that income, pur­chased more bred cows. After being denied the first time, Sybesma went back to the bank and received a loan to buy more cattle. He retained his second set of calves and decided to background them, while still work­ing his full-time job.

With each step, Sybesma was building confidence and a solid reputation. When owners of a local sale barn asked him if he was interested in buying a few high-risk calves, he was honest and said he didn’t have the cash. But with the success Sybesma was seeing by backgrounding his own cattle, he offered to do the same with these calves. The sale barn owners agreed.

The turning point in his career, Sybesma said, was when he lost a cow and calf during calving season. He was at his full-time job that day and knew that if he was on the farm, he could have saved them both. With his mind made up, he put in his two-weeks’ notice so he could devote his time and energy to the cattle operation.

It was a huge risk and a hard sell to his wife, but he said it was the right decision.

“Even though there was pressure to en­sure food was on the table and a roof over our head, Katie knew that this was my dream,” Sybesma explained. “Sometimes, after spending hours on the road and get­ting home when everyone is asleep, I second-guess my decision. But I know that with each challenge I am learning something new and really doing what I love.”

After the first few months, Sybesma’s family took on important roles in his full-time cattle operation. His brother, Wyatt, 16, helped him build a low-input working system consisting of hot-wire paddocks and dry lots with corral panels on a new farm. As the business grew, his brother, Abe, 22, and his family moved back home to help with the daily operations.

“Abe jumped in headfirst, picking up on all the things that needed to be done,” Sybesma said. “He brings more tools to the table, helping to take the business to the next level.”

He says the strong work ethic of the Sybesma brothers was instilled in them by their mother, who raised the enterprising boys as a single parent.

“After her divorce, my mom moved us closer to her family. She worked nonstop to make sure we were taken care of,” Sybesma said. “Seeing how hard she worked, raising three boys on her own, is what motivates me—really, all of us—to make our business the best it can be.”

A well-known livestock buyer in the area asked Sybesma Cattle Company to custom-feed two loads of cattle. With this great opportunity, Sybesma wanted to get things right. He asked a close friend and mentor, Greg Robinson, to share his knowledge about the best diet and feeds.

“We cared and fed the two loads of calves, and once they gained the proper amount of weight, we hauled and shipped them out,” Sybesma said. “It all went so well, I knew things were coming together.”

After that success, he started taking in more loads of cattle, acquiring more land and building a name for the operation.

“But I don’t pretend to know everything,” Sybesma said. “I started talking with Brandon (Sowers) at MFA in Pattonsburg. We discussed different products and came up with a plan. It just clicked, and things started operating even better.”

Sowers said he learned about Sybesma’s cattle business and knew that the young producer’s values and philosophies aligned with MFA.

“He’s the kind of person we are looking to partner with,” Sow­ers said. “I introduced myself and discovered more about his operation and goals. I used the expertise of MFA’s veterinarian, Dr. Tony Martin, nutritionist Marc Epp and partner programs with MU to help put plans together to achieve Eli’s goals. He’s the type of person who will continually push to achieve a goal, and once achieved, already has the next one in place.”

Always looking at ways to improve makes Sybesma a “great guy to partner with,” Sowers added. “He is not afraid to look at any avenue to enhance his business, which has allowed me to offer ideas and insight plus bring in other experts to lend their knowledge.”

Sybesma said the collaboration has been a positive move for his growing cattle business.

“With MFA on board, it removed the guesswork when it came to the arrival protocols on what to feed and what to use in the water,” he said. “We have a high success rate with our cattle because Brandon is always making sure we have all the tools needed at the farm and that we are ready to go when new cattle arrive.”

The MFA Health Track and Nutri-Track programs fit nicely into the operation, Sybesma said. On arrival, he uses Shield Liquid and 4G crumbles in an isolation pen to boost the calves’ health. After that, he feeds Cattle Charge with Shield and Rumensin to put as much “good” weight on as possible before they go on to their next stage.

“I am proud of the work we do,” Sybesma said. “We buy a calf that most people think doesn’t have a high chance of living. We bring it here, give it proper care and nutrition, and turn that No. 2 calf into a No. 1 calf. We know that once that calf leaves here, it will perform and do well.”

When asked what sets his high-risk cattle operation apart from others, Sybesma said proudly, “I think our thriving cattle speak for us. Our success rate is second to none. The amount of care that we put into our animals is exceptional. We take every step needed in the process. Yep. Our cattle speak for us.”

Reflecting on the past two years, Sybesma said he could not have made his dream a reality without the help and encour­agement of the people around him—even when the going gets tough.

“Taking a step back and looking at what we’ve done with so little proves that you can have a very low-input system with no fancy equipment and make it successful,” Sybesma said. “In this industry there are always rough times and things you can’t con­trol, like the markets and the weather. I always have my people standing there telling me I can make this happen, pushing me just a little bit harder.”

“There are hundreds of people who do what we do,” he added. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to be the best at it. And I think that we are probably pretty darn close to it—at least in my eyes.”

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